EAST LANSING — Sunday wasn’t the first time sophomore forward Tim Hardaway Jr. was held scoreless in the opening 20 minutes of a game against Michigan State.
So when he missed his only two field goals and was limited to one assist and no rebounds, the Wolverines weren’t overly concerned about Hardaway’s ability to charge back with a strong second-half performance. After all, in a win over the Spartans last season, Hardaway led Michigan to a win by scoring 20 second-half points after being held scoreless in the first half.
But this time, Hardaway mustered just four points — two of which came via meaningless free throws in the garbage time. The guard shot just 1-of-10 from the field, as the Wolverines fell, 64-54.
Not even Hardaway could explain why he was stifled all day long.
“I can’t even answer that question,” Hardaway said. “I just give them all the credit — they deserve it. They came out with a good game plan and executed.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had answers, though. Izzo lauded Hardaway’s talent and athleticism. So, instead of focusing on shutting down Hardaway, the Spartans game-planned to take away the methods Michigan uses to get Hardaway the ball.
That centered on containing freshman Trey Burke, the key to the Wolverines’ victory in Ann Arbor three weeks ago.
“What we did is we shut down Burke’s penetration,” Izzo said. “That’s kind of how Hardaway gets his shots. It wasn’t just shutting down Hardaway, it was how Hardaway gets shots, and that’s driving, kicking.”
Hardaway did, however, point to the youth and inexperience of Burke to account for some of his struggles. While Burke has often looked like a veteran floor general, in some road venues, he’s played closer to his own age.
The raucous atmosphere in Breslin Center proved troublesome for Burke, who scored 11 points, but had four turnovers.
“(There was) a little bit of miscommunication,” Hardaway said. “(The chemistry between Trey and I is developing) a little bit more slowly. … The chemistry is there, we just need it to be on a consistent basis and just try to make it a consistent effort. He’s still learning where people are out on the floor, and we just need to keep on working at it.”
But Hardaway’s struggles weren’t just the result of good defense or the faults of an inexperienced point guard. The Miami native has battled to contain his own emotions all season. Beilein often tells him to put on a “yes face” when he’s suffering through shooting slumps, and players have acknowledged that he gets too down on himself.
Hardaway’s emotions seemed to get the best of him from the get-go, starting when he missed a 3-pointer just 72 seconds into the game. After most of his nine misses, he hung his head or complained about a foul not being called, causing him to be slow to get back on defense.
“It’s just something Tim’s got to mature with,” said senior guard Stu Douglass. “It’s been an up-and-down road. … I don’t know if it’s something now where he just needs to hit some shots and get it going one game, but he needs to just stay poised mentally. He’s working on it.”
Douglass pinpointed Hardaway’s emotional struggles as a case of putting too much pressure on himself.
“It’s just tough, with a guy like that since there’s so much pressure put on him to score and (be) such a main focus of our offense,” Douglass said. “If he’s not shooting well, sometimes you don’t feel like you’re contributing if you’re in his position.”
Some analysts assumed Hardaway would bolt to the NBA after this season, but the sophomore has struggled with consistency and his 3-point shooting (21.2 percent) in conference play, and it now appears he’ll have to return next year.
Even with all of the struggles, Hardaway’s teammates reiterate that they still have the utmost confidence in him. Beilein maintains that, regardless of the sometimes-questionable on-court behavior of his star, he knows that Hardaway will always come back with a positive attitude the next day.
“I’m sure he’s disappointed — nobody’s more disappointed than him — but I love coaching that kid,” Beilein said. “Sometimes, people learn from experiences like this. You have to get better at just rolling with the punches a little bit more.
“We all have tough nights. He hasn’t come into practice one time — and he’s had a few tough nights, not too many of them — without a great attitude. That’s all we can ask for.”